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Denise ([staff profile] denise) wrote2011-08-03 09:53 am
Entry tags:

"Real Name" policies: They just don't work.

I've been watching the debate raging around Google Plus's crackdown on "names they perceive to be insufficiently 'real'" with interest, and was really happy to see the "soft launch" of My Name Is Me, a project intending to shed light on the fact that self-chosen names are not "fake names" and that anonymity, pseudonymity, and the use of self-chosen names (I've seen some people moving to call that state "autonymity", which I like a lot) is not harmful to the health and well-being of an online service.

This is something I care about a lot. I've spent the last ten years of my life, more or less, immersed in the idea of what it takes to build a healthy online community and how to handle (and discourage) the abuses that develop. I've dealt with harassment, death threats, stalking, and a whole host of vile things people can say and do to each other online. (And I haven't been exempt, either; at least part of my decision to use my 'real name', which I don't feel any emotional connection with at all, for my work on Dreamwidth has been to help increase the positive mentions of said name on the internet and drown out the Google results from several of those harassment campaigns.)

When we decided to start Dreamwidth, I did a lot of thinking about what my ideal online community would be. Our decisions for policies, community design, etc, were sharply shaped by the existing codebase we chose to use and the design thereof, but we did make a bunch of changes while we were still in design mode in order to shape the community we wanted to take place. (Biggest example there: the split of "friend" into "I want to read you" vs "I want you to read my locked stuff", which is the #1 change I credit in the development of DW as a service where people are overwhelmingly willing to reach outside their existing social circles, make new contacts and new friendships, and seek out differing points of view and differing ideas. Which, if I haven't said it lately, is absolutely awesome.)

One thing we never, ever, ever considered, even for a moment, was instituting a "real name" policy to prevent abuses. Why? Because it doesn't fucking work.

Many of the people who caused the worst problems on LiveJournal over the years had registered with some variant on their "real" name, or had their "real" name in their profile somewhere, or were widely known under their "real" name. (I use "real" in scarequotes deliberately, because god damn it, "rahaeli" is my real name. So's "synecdochic". The entire staff I supervised at LJ, both volunteer and paid employee, called me "rahaeli" or "rah" in a professional context, to the point where half our volunteers had to think really hard to remember my name. Most of the close friends I've made through fandom refer to me as "synecdochic" or "syne". I feel desperately weird being [staff profile] denise on Dreamwidth.) Many of the people who caused zero problems at all were operating under a self-chosen name that had no bearing on the name assigned to them at birth.

Facebook, which has an (inconsistently-enforced) "real name" policy, has to have an abuse staff that's probably larger than their programmer staff. Dreamwidth, which lets you call yourself whatever you want, gets one or two abuse complaints a month, if that. (And before anyone starts to say it has to do with the size of the service, I'm freely willing to admit that has something to do with it. I still know that, for instance, DW has fewer abuse complaints than LJ did, when it was the same size, by at least two orders of magnitude; I was there for both. I would love to see an industry-wide analysis of "instances of abuse complaints" vs "number of staff members dedicated to handling complaints" vs "site-wide anti-abuse policies", indexed by whether or not the service has a real name requirement. If we were making more money I'd fund one.)

The argument advanced by proponents of a "real" name policy, if I'm following correctly, is that people displaying their "real" name will think carefully about their behavior, for fear of accumulating negative reputation. What this argument fails to take into account is that "real" names are not unique identifiers -- I'm not the only Denise Paolucci in the world (and I feel sorry for the other ones out there, because their Google results are suffering from the same harassment as mine are and I feel obliquely guilty over that). When [staff profile] mark started working in the LJ office, at a time when there were only six employees in-office, not a single one of his three names (first, middle, family) was unique enough to be called by in casual office conversation. I, personally, don't feel much real emotional attachment to the reputation juice of "Denise Paolucci", because that's not me. When a bunch of disgruntled griefers took exception to me doing my job and decided to Googlebomb my name and try to destroy my professional reputation, I was annoyed, but I wasn't enraged. When people start fucking with the online reputation of "rahaeli", that's when I get furious.

And, of course, none of this is getting into the disproportionate chilling effect a "real name" policy has on vulnerable populations, nor the times when anonymity can literally be a condition of life or death, nor the fact that anonymity alone is not synonymous with abuse, nor the fact that "real names" are more complicated than most programmers think, nor the fact that enforcement of a "real name" policy disproportionately causes grief for anyone who isn't an upper-class, White, Westerner whose name can be rendered in ISO-8859-1 encoding. All of these considerations are important to keep in mind, and all of them are excellent reasons not to adopt a "real names" policy for your system.

But the first and foremost reason to avoid a "real name" policy is, and continues to be, that it is worthless for the purposes people try to use it for. The amount of abuse on your service has nothing to do with whether or not people are using their real names. It has to do with the community norms, the standard that people hold each other to, the tools you give your users to manage reputation and abuses, and the clearly-communicated expectations of the service. There's a reason we have our Diversity Statement and Guiding Principles linked on the bottom of every site page: it tells you the standard that we hold ourselves to, and implicitly challenges you all to live up to the same standards in your dealings with each other. And you know what? It's working.

I am disappointed in Google for taking such a simplistic, reductionist approach to the problem of online abuse, harassment, and reputation. They can do better.
kate: Kate Winslet is wryly amused (Default)

[personal profile] kate 2011-08-03 03:45 pm (UTC)(link)
I love you, and your oh-so-rational brain. Thank you for this.
kass: "let love be your engine," image of Kaylee and of Serenity (let love be your engine)

[personal profile] kass 2011-08-03 03:51 pm (UTC)(link)
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[personal profile] ilyena_sylph 2011-08-03 03:54 pm (UTC)(link)
I love you, Syne.

So damn much.

This is great.

It wants sparklehearts.
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 04:12 pm (UTC)(link)
What [personal profile] kass said. But also, while I certainly don't mean to minimize the importance of the safety issues around pseudonymity, one other issue that's often overlooked is that a robust culture of pseudonymity can improve the quality of discussion, and often does. Where no one can be sure of the (logically irrelevant) RL privileges that the person behind a persistent pseud might bring to a debate, participants have to focus on what was said, and come to grips with that, rather than dismiss some speakers as being unworthy of their full notice and consideration.

Which, I often think, is why authoritarians and those with authoritarian tendencies hate it. And reason enough to support it right there -- even if you don't go quite so far as I do, and find yourself instantly and automatically losing all respect for anyone who argues in favor of mandatory use of RL names.
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[personal profile] aedifica 2011-08-03 04:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for writing this! I left G+ because I was so uncomfortable with the anti-pseudonymity policy. I hope they'll change it, I'd like to go back... (while, of course, staying active on DW! because here is home.)
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[personal profile] jlh 2011-08-03 04:18 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you so much for this. I, too, don't have a lot of emotion connected to my "real" name--and in fact, frequently people say the phrase "the name you were given at birth" which, since I was adopted, isn't the same as my "real" or "legal" name. (Never mind people who have their names changed for a myriad of other reasons.) So many of us have well-used, ingrained nicknames that actually do differentiate us much more than our real names. It's just an odd and silly policy, not well enforced.

And frankly, at least FB was really clear from the start about what they wanted me to use for a name, even if they don't enforce it consistently and even if I don't agree with them. G+ absolutely was not.
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[personal profile] herlander_refugee 2011-08-03 04:22 pm (UTC)(link)
They can do better, but will they? Until they do, I won't be there.
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[personal profile] dglenn 2011-08-03 04:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I can't help seeing a parallel to the torture debate, where folks are saying (correctly) that it's wrong, that the good guys don't do that, that it has repercussions down the line, and every once in a while someone remembers to remind everyone else that it also doesn't even work outside of movies and there are much more effective ways to get the desired results. A 'real'-names-only policy is nowhere near the level of evil that torture is, but it does unfairly disprivilege already disprivileged people, and it's more "modern services don't do that" than "the good guys don't do that", but there's still the bit where a bunch of folks are trying to argue about whether the intended benefit is worth the negatives, while forgetting that it won't even produce the intended benefit in the first place, which ought to make the whole discussion moot.

Hmm. I'm pretty sure I can also come up with similar examples in economics or regulations or stupid stuff the broadcasting and publishing industries do, once I'm a little more awake -- torture was the example so prominent that the "... and it doesn't even work anyhow" aspect jumped right out and reminded me of.

What is this mental thing where people get so wedded to their initial idea for a solution that they keep pushing it even after it's shown that it doesn't solve the problem it was supposed to (and in some cases, was already known not to work before they thought it up because someone else had thought it up before them and tried it already)? How do we fix that?
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[personal profile] parhelion 2011-08-03 04:34 pm (UTC)(link)
I've gone by Parhelion for as long as I've socialized on-line. As much as I have any reputation for various behaviors, it's associated with this name. What Parhelion doesn't conjure up is tons of cues about particular things that can be said to me without thinking or merely to produce reactions because I am/am not a member of certain demographics. I cherish the extra second of cognition that Parhelion imposes.

Not always, but all too often, knee-jerk real name policies seem to reek of unconsidered social power. Thanks for coming out strongly on the other side of this issue and using some very practical considerations to back up your stance.
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[personal profile] glittertine 2011-08-03 04:42 pm (UTC)(link)
That. Ugh, it's weird to post on G+ as "tine g" in an effort to fend off someone reporting my profile as a pseud. It's weird. Odd. Just not me. Even worse is posting under my full real name, which hasn't had an internet presence since aol chat days (and reminds me of those days, too. URGH.).

I've been sending feedback after feedback to the (rather awesome, tbh) G+ team. But obviously, it's like speaking into the void and makes me feel like an idiot, especially after VP B announced that the pseud suspensions wouldn't happen any more, and then they did, again and again.

For years, people in the tech news I consume have been laughing at Google for not getting social. Even despite G+ copying the circle concept from, er, livejournal maybe possibly, and then being praised for reinventing social networking (orly?!), I did think that now they got it. But it's been THREE weeks since this issue began being discussed. If Dreamwidth or livejournal had ever dared to leave this many people hanging that long, there might have been pitchforks. But Google just stays silent - I don't understand how in the world they can afford that.

I mean, I get that Google are feverishly working on a solution that will fit all users, but why keep the suspensions going in the meantime? :((

All this to say: [personal profile] synecdochic, I love this place you and Mark and everyone else built, and man, is it ever appreciated. Every single day. My stubborn social graph didn't move here but for two people, so I'm still shackled to lj for comments and most fandom stuff. But it is so good to know that *this* is my internet home, which I can trust to not fall down around me because you GET it.
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[personal profile] stormy 2011-08-03 04:43 pm (UTC)(link)

I'm on Google+ right now, and it's uncomfortable to use my real name. In fact, I want to legally change my first name, but I don't have the funds to do so. Currently, I'm using the name I intend to use, and that is the most comfortable for me. While my name isn't outrageous, it's not the name given to me at birth, and the G+ account could be closed due to Google's (rather stupid) policy. They've clarified that if they suspend your Google+ account they won't delete Gmail or Google Calender. Still, pretty scary. I was all for giving G+ a try, because I'm extremely Facebook avoidant, but the way they're choosing to implement and crack down on things doesn't settle well with me.

... and the circles remind me so much of Dreamwidth, it's ridiculous.
dglenn: A musical Jolly Roger using a tambourine, a pair of zills, a keychain-sized set of panpipes, and two soprano recorders (JollyRoger)

[personal profile] dglenn 2011-08-03 04:56 pm (UTC)(link)
I am known by the name my parents gave me, a permutation of my legal name ... and still, when the Internet grew up and hordes started jumping online, I had to add nicknames to it for old friends to (a) find me and (b) be sure it really was me that they'd found, even though most of them used my mundane name more often than the nicknames when talking to or about me and (AFAIK) they all knew my family-name.

Okay, a FB or G+ style "real names" policy would still work for me as long as I could attach those nicknames conspicuously alongside[*], but it still points up how even the "we want to make it easier for people who are friends in real life to find you" alleged-benefit of a "real names" policy doesn't work quite the way they think.

And yeah, the initial ambiguity in the G+ policy was a recipe for disaster.

[*] Uh, when the input fields (or corresponding internal database fields) can actually handle the permutation of my name that I use and am known by, that is. I've got a very WASP name with no required punctuation -- no hyphen, no apostrophe, optional period. It fits entirely into the limitations of ASCII. I have no compound names (i.e. single name-components that have internal spaces, e.g. given name "Rose Marie" or surname "Wheeling Smith"), no Germanic or Gallic cognate of "of" to screw up parsing and capitalisation ("de", "von", etc.). And there are plenty of current and historical famous people who use the same format as I do. And even for what should be an easy name even for American programmers with really stupidly provincial ideas about names, a lot of sites can't handle first-initial+middle-name (instead of first-name+middle-initial), nor the generational suffix "Jr". They can't even get names from their own culture right! (I haven't checked whether G+ has this particular fail in it, but from what I've heard, a lot of non-English names have tripped their "doesn't sound 'real'" filter, in any case.)
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[personal profile] sapote 2011-08-03 05:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I enjoyed the linked list of reasons why real names are often impractical very much. You know, in many places and points at the 20th century in North America many married women retained neither a personal last name nor a personal first name outside of intimate social circles. You will still run into older women who want to be referred to as Mrs. George Pufnstuf by strangers. I don't know if they're on Google +, but they certainly write irritable letters to advice columnists. I'm not defending (or condemning) the practice; I just think it's at least a little wry that many of the people insisting that everyone on earth has their own personal, public last name and first name probably have grandmothers who at some point did not.
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[personal profile] zorkian 2011-08-03 05:09 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes. Google's policy on this issue really bugs me. I don't even understand why they're trying to enforce this, either, because they've got to know it's useless...
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[personal profile] erik 2011-08-03 05:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I believe Google's stated reasons for insisting on this may be different from their actual reasons. Google isn't doing this to protect their users, they're doing it to protect their revenue.

Google Plus is a "free" service. Which inevitably means that the users are the product being sold to advertisers and others. And a user's legal name—which can be linked easily enough to their address, etc—is a very valuable asset indeed.

So all the arguments in the world refuting their stated reasons are not going to make even a tiny dent in their policies.

[personal profile] indywind 2011-08-03 05:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Where no one can be sure of the (logically irrelevant) RL privileges that the person behind a persistent pseud might bring to a debate, participants have to focus on what was said, and come to grips with that, rather than dismiss some speakers as being unworthy of their full notice and consideration.

Or else question or assert about privilege instead/in addition to the topic being debated, and thus indicate (at best)that they find that context relevant or (at worst) they aren't capable of debating ideas on their own merits without playing on privilege dynamics.

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist, that's a great point.

You might consider adding it to the Geek feminism Wiki list of who is harmed by a Real Name policy -- the link from "vulnerable populations" in Syne's post points there.

princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2011-08-03 05:34 pm (UTC)(link)

And what about all the time and energy people spend teaching their kids to use pseudonyms to interact online, to protect them while they are minors? Are those favorite names going to magically disappear once the kid turns 18? No. And why should they?

This whole "must use your real name" is just so silly. As you say it doesn't solve anything its proponents think it will.
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2011-08-03 05:36 pm (UTC)(link)
i think you're onto something here. so many things about the commercial internet are about marketing.
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[personal profile] hederahelix 2011-08-03 05:37 pm (UTC)(link)
I know it's obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway because it's been driving me batty.

There are instances in which people blog online under pseuds for really valid reasons. Sometimes it's not as dire as life or death. Sometimes it's a matter of people in jobs where a link between their online behavior and their day job could end up in them losing work. I'm not just talking about pre-school teachers writing smut in their spare time (although so long as they aren't bringing smut into school, I don't see why we care. Most smut writing teachers I know don't bring their smut into the classroom--even when the classrooms are populated by adults.)

I'm talking about people who are trying to shed light on bad practices in their jobs but who are not protected by long term contracts because they're at will employees.

And, I am so, so tired of parts of the media acting like pseuds are fake names. They aren't. They're different identities. I see the clash between the importance of legal names and pseuds every time I go to a fan convention.

Those of us who move knowingly in these circles understand the difference between a pseud and a sock puppet. I resent being denied the ability to use the former because other people who aren't very online don't understand how to suss our or can't be bothered to do the work to figure out when someone is the latter.

There are people in fandom whom I know quite well. I've known some of them for more than a decade. I can tell you what's going on with their kids. I've been to their homes multiple times. Heck, I've traveled cross country to meet with them. Chances are that I know more about what goes on in their workplace and their families than many of their coworkers who would count themselves friends of the folks in question.

And I couldn't tell you their legal last name if my life depended on it. I may not even be 100% sure of their legal first name.

Pseuds in some communities develop identities that are attached to those names, and denying people the ability to hold on to those identities is a very short-sighted move on Google's part.

I try not to be too skeptical, but I an inclined to suspect that it is at least as much about Google's desire to market stuff than about abuse, harassment, and reputation issues. It's much easier to track and market me to non-online stuff by my legal name than by my pseud, isn't it?
Edited 2011-08-03 17:39 (UTC)
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[personal profile] arie 2011-08-03 05:48 pm (UTC)(link)
I use my "real name" on Facebook. I actually deliberately chose to do so because I use that name nowhere else on the internet. So, anyone searching for the me-they-actually-know wouldn't find it, unless I wanted them too. My "real name" turns up 0 results that are actually me. In fact, when pondering my options on Facebook, I also deliberately chose not to use my maiden name, though that also turns up 0 results that are actually me.

The only way to find the REAL me online is to use the name I've used for myself for the last 18 years, and everyone including my own mother (though she denies it, if asked) calls me. If that doesn't make it my real name, then your system's screwed up. FWIW, I use my real name, not my "real name" on Google+. Apparently (so far), it's "real" enough to not get shut down. But I haven't really been using the site, so it wouldn't be a great loss to me or them if it were.

ETA: I should add that both my married and maiden full "real name" are so common as to turn up numerous search results, none of which are me. My real name is unique enough to find me on the first page of results, usually the first or second link. So only knowing my real name will do anyone looking for me, or wanting to use that information for marketing or ad purposes, any good. I'd venture a guess this is true for many people. Given/birth/legal/"real" names aren't as unique or valuable as corporations think they are, whereas the names we've chosen for ourselves tend to be much more so.
Edited 2011-08-03 17:58 (UTC)
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[personal profile] syntaxofthings 2011-08-03 05:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Every time you come out with an opinion that matches mine (or that I get to learn from!) but with the weight of experience in managing social communities, I feel so happy that Dreamwidth exists and it is a good home on the Internet. I've made great friends here and being on a service with such an open, caring staff makes me want to do all I can to support it.
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 05:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks. I'll check out the Wiki list. I'm actually working on a long-ish post about this aspect of the problem, which you'd think the mainstream would have jumped on immediately -- it's not as if the value of not knowing RL identities isn't well established in other contexts. The example I keep using is that of orchestras and auditions: all respectable orchestras now audition musicians with a screen in place, because long experience has shown that even the best-trained listeners are incapable of evaluating a performance without subconsciously factoring in the player's gender, race, physical attractiveness, et cetera if they have that information in front of them. And once the screened audition was established as a standard practice, why, it was amazing how nonwhite, nonmale musicians were suddenly being hired.

If you actually believe any of the U.S. civic religion around the marketplace of ideas and meritocracy and respect for all individuals of whatever background, a healthy appreciation for persistent pseuds ought to be a no-brainer. I realize that by no means all of us are either U.S. types or ideologically aligned with that set of ideals, and I don't mean to suggest that others should buy into that particular speech paradigm. It's just, since it is my country's officially-approved, dominant-paradigm model you'd think we'd see more support for it from the mainstream.

-- Although what a real name policy is good for is buying and selling, so maybe not. What's good for the wheels of commerce isn't always what's good for discourse, and I suppose it's easy for corporations and a lot of the mainstream in general to forget that it's a good idea to support both goals of life online, and not to privilege one so far that you harm the other.
dharma_slut: They call me Mister CottonTail (Default)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2011-08-03 06:01 pm (UTC)(link)
G+ has been heaven on earth to a certain person who I will not name here without disemvowallage.

And to me that's kinda... 'nuff said.
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[personal profile] muck_a_luck 2011-08-03 06:37 pm (UTC)(link)
I think this is exactly the source of trying to pin down who users "really" are. The advertizing economy is super-creepy to me, everybody trying to make money by telling people about something someone else is doing, as efficiently as possible. Maybe I'm naive, but I feel like the internet's advertising-driven economy, with it's ability to track and target activity, has just blown this whole sector completley out of control.
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[personal profile] archane 2011-08-03 06:38 pm (UTC)(link)
I am personally privileged enough that I don't have to fear using my legal identity online. I'm also privileged enough that I don't need to separate my personal and professional lives (although I chose to). For these types of issues, I defer to the people without the privilege (who all seem to say that "real names" policies are dangerous and exclusionary).

What drives me crazy, personally, is the implied assumptions in these policies — and the justifications for these policies — that the use of something other than a person's legal identity means that the person is anonymous. If you do a Google search on "[name on my SSN card]", I show up as a blip on the very bottom of the first results page, and you don't get anything substantive ever. If you do a Google search on "[my legal first name]", you will probably never find me.

On the other hand, if you do a Google search for "Archane Nightspirit", you get two pages of me. If you do a Google search for just "Archane", I'm still three of the top five results.

Which of these names, then, gives me more anonymity?

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